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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:24PM   |  1 comment

I dare you: Imagine a world where innovative  documentaries tour around a country in major cineplexes with state of the art digital projection and THX sound. 

No, not the next Michael Moore sardonic-missionary-I’m-gonna-teach-you-about-America’s-problems doc.  No, not the next-big-budget –genre-pix-hipster-white-dudes-with-a-purpose theatrical docs like Food Inc, The Cove, Chicago 10.

Imagine yourself going to a multiplex theater with a rooftop bar and seeing films like Natalia Almada’s El General, a feature length, epic, experimental essay ruminating on one hundred years of power in Mexico, or Alexandra Halkin’s Migrar y Morir, an expose of transnational agribusiness exploitation of workers and the environment in Sinaloa.

Now, remember this name and repeat after me: Ambulante

Ambulate is a traveling documentary film festival in Mexico that brings new long form documentaries pushing the edges of the genre to 12 cities around Mexico, spanning Monterrey, Tijuana and Leon in the north, Morelia, Mexico City and Puebla in central Mexico, and San Cristobal and Oaxaca in the south.  The screenings fill the house.

“There are no opportunities to distribute documentaries in Mexico,” explained Elena Fortes, the feisty, focused, and ferociously sharp director of Ambulante.  “ There is basically no educational market for documentary like in the United States, plus, very few independent art houses exist.” Fortes, 30 years old, is also one of the documentary programmers for the Morelia International Film Festival. Her twin sister Mara Fortes, a PhD student in film theory at the University of Chicago, also works at the festival.

In 2005, movie stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (who first came into prominence in the 2001 breakthrough Mexican new wave narrative Y Tu Mama Tambien directed by Alfonso Cuaron) devised a plan to produce low budget films to counter the caricatures and  stereotyping of Mexicans in commercial Hollywood films.  To address this issue as well as the bottleneck on distribution and exhibition, they created Ambulante to promote the screening and production of documentary in Mexico.  

Ambulante carves out space for documentary in an economic context offering very few openings for independent Mexican cinematic visions to blossom. Transnational Holllywood films from TriStar, Universal, Warner and Columbia dominate 92% of Mexican screens.  87% of television is controlled by two broadcasters. 

Through a partnership with the Morelia International Film Festival and Cinepolis, the largest motion picture exhibitor in Mexico and Latin America and the fifth largest in the world, Ambulate programs Mexican and international documentaries for theatrical exhibition.  With its stadium seating, state of the art projection, excellent sight lines, and surround sound, Cinepolis removes some of prejudice against documentary in Mexico, where it is often confused with news or broadcast fare. 

In the United States, it’s hard to imagine a major exhibitor partnering with a nonprofit to get  demanding and aesthetically sophisticated documentaries into theaters. But with very few art cinemas left in Mexico, Cinepolis is the only game around.  Plus, the CEO of Cinepolis, Alejandro Ramirez, is a movie mogul cut from a different cloth than his counterparts el norte: as well known internationally as an exhibitor as a human rights activist (he worked on poverty  for the United Nations Development Program), he is committed to documentary and  nurturing Mexican film.

“Develar realidades, confrontarlas, inventarlas, criticarlas, transformarlas”  (unveil realities, confront them, invent them, criticize them, transform them) is the mantra of Ambulante.  Ambulante, according to Fortes, does as much work programming as it does building audiences.  It works: their screenings at the multiplexes are jammed.They are bringing documentaries to different regions and audiences in Mexico, not waiting for audiences to find them.

For their 2009 season, Ambulante programmed a gutsy mix of international and Mexican documentaries. Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008), Emerald (Apichatpong Weerasethal, Thailand, 2007), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, US/Germany, 2007) and Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin, Singapore, 2007) suggest the range of styles and approaches, from compilation to observation to reenactment to meditation. Mexican documentaries included Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez, Mexico, 2009)which questions the legal system and rules of evidence in Mexico,  Those Who Remain (Juan Carlos Rulfo, Mexico, 2008), an exploration of the impact of immigration on families, and Voices Silenced (Maria del Carmen de Lara, Mexico, 2008), an expose into the question of civil rights and freedom of speech in Mexico. 

At this year’s Morelia Festival, Presumed Guilty not only grabbed a long standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” but nabbed the top prize for documentary.

“The 60s and 70s filmmakers were heavily influenced by film movements in Argentina and Cuba as well as the international student movements of the period,” observed Fortes.  “Their works were much more interventionist than the documentaries we see today, which have a new form, often more observational or using different forms.”

In Mexico, a new wave of documentary has blossomed beyond the more typical stories of immigration, in such collaborative poetic films like Flores de Diesierto, made with the Huicholes people,  hybrid experimental, meditative documentary essays like El General , and La Cuerda Floja, a Spanish produced acutely photographed observational film about a traditional circus family.  All of these films screened at the Morelia International Film Festival this year. 

But there’s a rather disturbing gender divide in Mexican film production. Most of the Mexican narrative features and shorts at this year’s Morelia International Film Festival were directed by men.  With its smaller budgets and crews, documentary has been more accessible.  Lucia Gaja, Natalia Almada, Alejandra Sanchez, Daniela Ludlow, Guadalupe Miranda, and Eva Andjis are important figures in Mexican documentary with international visibility. 

But Elena Fortes foresees some possibility for change. In 2008, the Mexican government inaugurated a tax incentive to stimulate the Mexican film industry.  Still, most production is concentrated in Mexico City and Quadalajara, where the major filmmaking schools are located.

Despite the challenges of the gender divide, transnational corporate control of product, and the documentary moniker stigma, Ambulante has done something hard to imagine anywhere else in the world: they’ve connected necessary and urgent documentaries, a major multiplex and large engaged audiences. 

They’ve dared to make the unimaginable possible. Ambulante.  Remember the name.






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